UTSA went from America's Sweetheart to watching bowl season in 2017. Derailed by four losses of seven points or less and an anemic offense, the dream year turned sour.
Now Frank Wilson's training wheels come off. A two plus year starter at quarterback, the top three receivers, and four offensive lineman are all gone, replaced by potential. Al Borges, new offensive coordinator will seek to turn that potential into production.
While the offense might be a mystery, the defense is anything but. How do you replace your first ever first round pick? With two or three long, rangy, freakish athletes.
UTSA's spring casting call to replace Dalton Sturm ended with a cliffhanger. Bryce Rivers tops the depth chart after the spring game but Cordale Grundy is still in the mix, and SMU transfer D.J. Gillins brings another element to the position. Safe to say quarterback auditions will dictate the direction of UTSA's offense.
Borges' offense will play with a bit more pace than last season's attack, but they'll still use West Coast principles. Borges spent last season as an analyst for Gus Malzahn and Auburn; we'll see how much of Malzahn's attack rubbed off. At his best Borges is known for running efficient offenses that run the football, convert third downs at a higher than average rate, and generally try to run clock. When it works its suffocating when it doesn't it's still suffocating just in the "I'd rather stir concrete with my eye lashes than watch it" way.
Rivers completed one pass last season as Sturm's backup, and once Frank Harris suffered his second knee injury in three seasons, the options became limited. Rivers looked comfortable in the spring game, whether he can lead the team through a brutal September schedule that includes three Power 5s is a huge question mark. If he survives and doesn't lose his confidence or nerve, he'll find the CUSA slate much more palatable.
While we're here, it's important to note that Sturm became one of the better quarterbacks in the league. He connected on 62% of his passes and threw for over 2,100 yards in a run-first system. He threw for three touchdowns for every interception and most importantly when plays broke down, he improvised better than most. The Roadrunners must make up for his lost production and playmaking.
To that end, Jalen Rhodes and B.J. Daniels will play a massive role in UTSA's offense. Rhodes played hurt to end the season, limiting his attempts. Through the first seven games of 2017, Rhodes averaged fifteen carries and 80 yards. In the final four games (three losses) he averaged seven carries and just 24 yards. Daniels can make up some slack. His size and explosiveness could make him special.
At receiver seniors, Greg Campbell and Marquez McNair move into prime time roles with the departures of Josh Stewart, Kerry Thomas Jr., and Brady Jones. Tariq Woolen and Tykee Ogle-Kellogg are tantalizing with measurables and upside. They're also off-the-bus matchup problems.
Up front, the Roadrunners are banking on two JC transfers to start from day one. Treyvion Shannon will move in at left tackle, and Jalyn Galmore moves into the right guard position. Josh Dunlop is the lone returning starter from last August. He's a good one at right tackle. Inside Swiss Army knife, Jordan Wright settles at left guard while redshirt freshman Kevin Davis is tabbed at center. Davis has excellent feet.
Depth on the line is an issue as it is everywhere. When you cycle through eight or nine starters, your youth is asked to step into the front line and filling in behind is a dilemma. When the injury bug hits, and it hits everyone, UTSA could be exposed.
Pete Golding left his position at UTSA to take a role on Alabama's staff. Nick Saban knows what he's doing, and so did Golding. UTSA finished fifth in the FBS in total defense behind Alabama, Wisconsin, Michigan, and Clemson, and head of blue bloods like Georgia and Ohio State. The Roadrunners promoted Jason Rollins to Golding's position, and they should be stingy allowing CUSA opponents to find the end zone.
Golding's defenses were spread killers. He could commit fewer assets to pressure the quarterback with sound results, leaving him the option to flood the secondary with bodies. Rollins won't change the formula too much, and he still has plenty of playmakers on his defensive front.
There are monsters off 1604, and they inhabit the UTSA defensive line. Kevin Strong Jr., Eric Banks, Baylen Baker, Jerrod Carter-McLin, King Newton, and Lorenzo Dantzler contribute to an eight deep line rotation. Marcus Davenport is gone to the league, but the Roadrunners will create as much if not more havoc because they'll come in waves.
Dantzler is one to watch here. He grew up in a vineyard of NFL talent in the state of Mississippi and spent last season at East Mississippi Community College, a football factory.
At linebacker, UTSA loses the ultra-productive La'Kel Bass but return a healthy Josiah Tauaefa who might be the best linebacker in CUSA. Les Mauro moves into Bass' position, and Donovan Perkins will see the field as well.
Last season the strength of the secondary were two excellent corners in Devron Davis and Austin Jupe, this season the strength shifts to safety. C.J. Levine and Carl Austin return along with Darryl Godfrey on the backend. Andrew Martel returns as well after seeing a lot of action in 2017.
At corner, the Roadrunners will turn to Oklahoma State transfer and walk-on Clayton Johnson who played nickel last year. Johnson tallied two picks last season in limited action. Across from Johnson, senior Stanley Dye Jr. will get the first look. Two sophomores, Teddrick McGhee and Javontavious Mosley, will see work as well. McGhee is back after sitting out last season and making eight starts as a true freshman in 2016.
Jared Sackett was a revelation in 2017, making 86% of his field goal attempts and 96% of his extra points as a freshman. He hit a long of 44 against USM.
Folk hero Yannis Routsas finished fifth in CUSA with a 41.55 average and placed 28 of his 47 punts inside the 20. He also had ten punts of 50 yards or longer.
Brett Winnegan is back to return kickoffs, not that kickoff returns are allowed anymore.
Jalen Rhodes Running Back
When healthy, Rhodes is a three down back who can make tough yards between the tackles and explode into the secondary and beyond.
Kevin Strong Jr. Defensive Line
Plays bully ball on the interior of the Roadrunner defense. Will force teams to double team and he's physical enough to exploit the extra attention.
Eric Banks Defensive Line
The junior from Memphis made his presence known with 8.5 tackles for loss. At 6-5, 240, he's a growing concern for offensive coordinators.
Josiah Tauaefa Linebacker
One of the most instinctual linebackers in college football. Has all the physical tools to be an All-American.
The Roadrunners beat the cellar dwellers (sorry UTEP and Rice but the truth is an ally only if you speak it) and some amalgamation of Louisana Tech, UAB, North Texas and FIU to get to six wins and perhaps a second bowl trip. 6-6.
The offense struggles without Sturm et al, the last four games of 2017 are a precursor to 2018. The secondary gets picked on like a fifth grader who's really into Star Trek. 3-9.
With questions at quarterback and along the offensive front the Roadrunners are probably a year away from really competing in CUSA West. Wilson is stockpiling young talent, but surviving a tough three game, P5 trip to start the season will be difficult.
That being said, it won't take long for players like B.J. Daniels, Tariq Woolen, Tykee Ogle-Kellogg, and Eric Banks to become the faces of this program.